When she was out at the polls on Election Day, Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo ran into a voter who confidently assured her that she was a shoo-in.
"Please don't say that," Ms. Bobo responded. "There is a very restless atmosphere among the electorate."
The executive found out Tuesday night just how restless voters were. She wound up 244 votes behind Republican Charles I. Ecker, who began the campaign as a long shot. Her fate now rests on the counting of 1,500 absentee ballots this afternoon.
Ms. Bobo, 46, of the Columbia area, appeared crestfallen at a press conference yesterday, saying she would be, "extremely disappointed" if she does not win. "It is a job I absolutely love," she said. "I am concerned that I might not have another term, but I am hopeful."
Mr. Ecker, 61, also of the Columbia area, was "cautiously optimistic" that absentee ballots will make him the first elected Republican county executive. J. Hugh Nichols was elected as a Democrat in 1978, but switched to the GOP in his second term.
The retired deputy superintendent of county schools rode a Republican bandwagon that saw 11 other members of the GOP win office in a county that had been predominantly Democratic.
Wednesday-morning quarterbacking was the talk of the day, as political observers tried to figure out why a well-financed executive who boldly took on the growth issue with several key measures to slow development wound up on the precipice.
Ms. Bobo, who started as a civic activist and spent nine years on the County Council before becoming executive, has neven been beaten in an election.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Ecker swept nearly all the precincts outside Columbia, and Ms. Bobo won most of the precincts in the unincorporated town. That suggested the Columbia vs. old Howard County split of former elections.
Alan M. Rifkin, lobbyist for the predominantly business-backed Economic Forum, which found itself at odds with Ms. Bobo on her growth-control legislation, said he was "not surprised" by Mr. Ecker's strong showing.
"The Republicans were very successful in getting their message out, and getting out the vote," he said. "Besides that, there was disenchantment with the Bobo administration by some members of the business and farm communities, as well as others. There has been an awful lot of rancor and discontent the last two years, and that cost was paid at the polls."
Mr. Ecker, who has an affable personality, came across as "a people-oriented person,' said Mr. Rifkin, who said the Republican candidate exhibited a "charisma similar to Governor Schaefer. Politics is the art of relating to people and Chuck has it."
Brad Coker, the GOP pollster, said Ms. Bobo suffered from "the Dukakis syndrome. We started attacking her after the primary and she did not respond and we kept hitting harder. I think she felt her lead was larger than it was, and she felt that getting engaged in a debate might hurt her chances more."
Ms. Bobo made note of her "positive campaign" during yesterday's press conference. Asked if, in hindsight, she should have changed her strategy, she saiid, "I thought about it last night. Should we have run a negative campaign? I came to the conclusion that, no, we should not have."
Her aide, Grace Kubofcik, said the Bobo campaign "had every indication she was going to win with a comfortable margin. But there was a solid and large Republican vote and non-Columbia precincts appeared to have voted heavier than Columbia precincts."
Carol Arscott, chairwoman of the county GOP Central Committee, said Ms. Bobo "ran a terrible campaign. The Democrats don't know how to run a campaign because they never had to before. You're got to get out to meet people. The executive started knocking on doors the Sunday before the election and clearly that won't do."
Citizen activist Scott Hocksema, president of the Coalition of Community Associations, said Ms. Bobo "misjudged the feelings of the people in the county. There were a lot of us who didn't see all her policies as strictly slow-growth and she did not seek out the community for advice."
The Bobo administration, he maintained, had a "communication problem. What she needed was a better PR job."
Ms. Bobo tried to steer a middle course on growth, particularly with a General Plan that imposed tight restrictions in some areas but allowed development in others, and wound up stirring resentment on all sides of the issue.
Beyond that, she suffered from the anti-incumbent sentiment and rising GOP registration. In a county where the voters were more than 2-to-1 Democratic in the '70s and early '80s, the ratio is now a slight Democratic advantage of 1.38 to 1.
"The Democrats may have taken us lightly until it was too late, and now we have a two-party system," said Darrel Drown, who ousted Councilwoman Angela Beltram in the 2nd District representing Ellicott City.